Labouring in Forbearance

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I am not the guy to write this article.

One of the pastors I follow on Twitter tweets out a link, endorsing an article written by a women whose theological views are fairly out of line with Scripture. I grow frustrated. “Why does her platform keep growing? And why is he spreading this nonsense?” Eyeroll.

I’m driving down I-40W. I need to get over to the far left lane, but trucks ride along in the middle lanes, and the car in front of me is mistaking the gas pedal for the brake pedal. “Idiot.” I finally get a chance to speed around these trucks to where I need to be. Before I get to the left lane, a sports car blazes past me. I relent, and let him pass, but not without a, “What’s your problem?”

It is Friday afternoon. I am checking out at the grocery store. I have 3 items. The woman in front of me has at least 20. I have somewhere to be (home, reading, instead of shopping). She sees what I am holding, but does not feel compelled to let me go ahead of her. She starts loading her items onto the belt. I keep a straight face, but judge her.

A brother in Christ writes an article about the election, suggesting a seemingly ridiculous approach to voting. To further the matter, another respected pastor hosts it on his blog and pushes it out. Here I go again. I spout off. No favorites, no retweets, but I feel better (for a couple of minutes).

I could share more examples, but why exhaust you? I only aim to validate what I said from the start: I am not the guy to write this article.

Forbearance is a foreign concept to me, and to many of us. It is a word we never use, not only because it is a bit archaic for us, but because we struggle to identify what it looks like in real life. We are not forbearing people by nature. It is ironic, perhaps, that the word “forbearance” is only found three times in Scripture, and in each instance it is attributed to God and decidedly not man. Regardless, I still think forbearance is a communicable attribute; in other words, an attribute we as humans can and should experience with God as our model.

I am currently reading Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors. The book is a collection of The Doctor’s plenary addresses at the Puritan Studies and Westminster Conferences over the course of roughly 20 years. As I was reading one of his talks, centered on John Owen and his thoughts on schism in the Church, he quoted Owen to make a small point, but the quote has so resonated with me that this post was birthed:

“When men have laboured as much in the improvement of the principle of forbearance as they have done to subdue other men to their opinions, religion will have another appearance in the world.”

Here is John Owen (and further, Lloyd-Jones agreeing) suggesting that perhaps a better evidence of our spiritual fruits is how we forbear with people as opposed to our natural impatience with people, our doctrinal persistence. John Owen is saying that, which speaks volumes. Puritans love their doctrine and hold fast to it better than most. But a way forward, as Owen suggests, is forbearance. 

To forbear, in a biblical sense, means to patiently restrain our impulses. When we hear “impulse” we think of something sinful in nature, like gossip or jealousy or lust. Or we think of something frivolous, like the impulse items that line the cashier shelves at grocery stores, little teases begging us to spend only a dollar more. But sometimes impulses aren’t inherently sinful, nor frivolous at all, especially concerning theology. Those of us who consider ourselves students of theology know these impulses well. “Cage-stage” is the humorous way we express these impulses. Picturing the guy frothing at the mouth, clenching the bars of doctrine that imprison him. I’ve written on the danger of becoming “cage-stage” with doctrine, and how to break out of it. The point is, sometimes the best way to win someone to our doctrinal side is to be patient instead of forceful.

A great example of the need for forbearance, especially within the Christian community, popped up this past week. Multiple voices within the Evangelical community, and prominent voices at that, have exchanged their fair share of barbs against one another over the issue of the Trinity, eternal subordination, and how that supports a complementarian ethic (for reference, see example articles against this doctrine here and here, and articles for it here and here). A majority of the people engaged in the discussion were very patient and kind throughout. But our tendency in these touchy and tricky discussions is to so desire to “Red Rover” those of other positions to our side that we neglect the importance of journeying with people. We must not problem-solve our way out of these crucial matters, even when they are important to get right.

Ultimately, we forbear, because He first forbore us. The jargon about loving our neighbors is unending; what if this is a place we can put those concepts to action? I don’t exhort you to learn from Owen from a position of authority – I still get agitated and impatient, whether I’m trying to disciple a guy toward reading his Bible or the Internet slows down. This is one of those quotes I want to store back in my memory for safe-keeping. I want to help people grow in the knowledge and grace of God, but I never want to do so with so much zeal that I bulldoze my way about it. In a world of fast-food, convenience stores, self-checkouts and on-demand services, I propose a life of patient, restraining, graceful endurance.

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